Production Line: Medical Innovations Pathways program is helping assemble a workforce

Utah’s medical device industry is growing quickly—so quickly that it threatens to outpace the state’s ability to provide enough workers to fill the skilled jobs the industry requires. Yet if you ask a group of Utah high school students what they plan to do after graduation, it’s likely that few will even know that a job with biotechnology or medical manufacturing is an option.

A new program hopes to change that—and open doors to well-paying careers for thousands of young Utahns in the process.

The Medical Innovations Pathways (MIP) program is a joint effort between school districts, Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) and several Utah companies. Here’s how the year-long program works:

  1. High school students spend the first semester taking classes in their schools to introduce the basic science, engineering, and technology information and skills that are necessary in the medical devices industry.
  2. They spend the next semester in classes developed by SLCC, where they get more in-depth training on the topic.
  3. Meanwhile, they are paired with one of the more than a dozen medical device companies in the program, where they get direct experience through an internship or job shadow experience.
  4. After the students graduate, they have the chance to interview for work at the companies involved in the program. If they’re hired, they’ll earn what GOED refers to as “family-sustaining wage.”

The program is now in its first year. So far, only 20 students are enrolled, all from the Granite School District, but plans are in place to expand to the Davis and Canyons school districts next school year and bring the total number of students up to 60, says Kimberlee Carlile, Pathways program manager for GOED. From there, organizers expect the numbers of school districts and students to keep growing.

Manufacturing a workforce

According to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, the number of manufacturing jobs in the state has grown by 11 percent over past five years. Meanwhile, medical equipment manufacturing jobs increased by 27 percent during that same time period.

Filling those jobs presents a challenge for many companies in Utah, which struggle to find enough qualified candidates for both entry-level jobs, as well as those jobs that require more advanced training and experience.

“We’ve got great life sciences companies, but if we can’t crack the workforce issues, these companies aren’t going to be able to grow the way they need to,” says Ben Hart, managing director of business services at GOED.

One business facing workforce challenges is Edwards Lifesciences, a California-based company with manufacturing facilities in Utah. Edwards is a medical device company that builds prosthetic heart components. The company’s Utah offices build devices that are used to insert prosthetic heart valves via a catheter, eliminating the need for open-heart surgery when replacing a failing heart valve.

Edwards is participating in the MIP program in hopes of growing its own workers to help fill the company’s increasing need for workers in the state, says Trent Bingham, the company’s director of human resources in Utah.

One of the unusual elements of the Medical Innovations Pathways program is that it has brought together multiple life sciences companies to work toward a common goal: increasing the availability of skilled labor in Utah. Hopefully, Bingham says, the whole industry will benefit from it.

“We’re all essentially competing for a shrinking market, and, as an industry, we can continue to steal talent from each other or we can all work together to expand the talent pool if we provide training and exposure early on,” he says.

The program is just over halfway through its first year, so Edwards is still figuring out how it plans to run its MIP students’ job shadow experiences, Bingham says. The company plans to tailor the experience to each student based on his or her interests and strengths. The most complicated and difficult work will be handled by employees with more extensive training, but the high school students will have plenty of real opportunities to participate in the work the company does.

“We want the students to have some real-life on-the-job experience that gives them exposure to what the job is really like, and what working in the industry is really like,” Bingham says.

At the end of the program, the MIP students at Edwards Lifesciences will receive a certificate guaranteeing them a job interview at the company (as long as their performance in classes and during job-shadowing has been satisfactory). Many companies, including Edwards, will provide tuition reimbursement for employees from the program who go on to get higher education.

Several pathways to success

MIP is modeled after the Aerospace Innovations Pathways program, which started during the 2015-16 school year. The seeds of that program were planted after Boeing opened facilities in Utah several years ago. Boeing representatives approached GOED with concerns about being able to find enough workers with the skills needed to fill their open jobs. They worked together to develop the pathways program, incorporating both classroom learning and real-world experience with aerospace companies.

Since then, GOED and its partners have also created and launched the Utah Diesel Technician Pathways program, which guides interested students into careers as diesel technicians.

One important value of the pathways programs is in showing students the variety of jobs that are available in Utah. Most teenagers are unaware that such a thing as medical device manufacturing even exists as a career option.

The pathways programs are still in their infancy, and it remains to be seen how big their impact will be on the companies involved and on the industries as a whole in the state. But they’ve already had an undeniable effect in the lives of the students in the programs.

Carlile says she recently got an email from a woman whose grandson completed the Aerospace Innovations Pathways program last year. He had been listless and struggling in school and had no plan for what to do after he graduated. That all changed once he joined the program. He had always been interested in aerospace, and now he had a direct path to get involved with it.

Another parent reported that her son completed the program and had been employed at an aerospace company making a livable wage and had already received a raise, less than a year out of high school.

Those involved with the pathways programs are hopeful that this is just the beginning.

“This is something we want to see proliferated across the state,” Hart says. “We want to see more relationships between industry and education. That’s where good things happen.”

Medical Innovations Pathways Program Utah is home to more than 100 medical device companies. At least 14 companies signed on to participate in the Medical Innovations Pathways program during its first year:

Bard Access Systems
BD Medical
BioFire Diagnostics
CoNextions Medical
Edwards Lifesciences
EZ Lift Rescue Systems
Fresenius Medical Care
GE Healthcare
Merit Medical
Nelson Labs
Sorenson Genomics
Stryker Corporation
Varian Medical Systems

Utah’s Medical Device Industry

  • 10,049 workers were employed in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing establishments in 2015.
  • The average monthly salary for these workers was $4,674

Source: Utah Department of Workforce Services